“Why do we chant ‘Mu! Mu! Mu!’ during kinhin?” Chozen asked. “From one point of view, it’s totally absurd.”

We took our places around the zendo perimeter facing out, her question lingering. When we’d discovered this new seating arrangement, Nadia lamented, “Oh, that’s…lonely.” “Yup!” Chozen smiled mischievously. “It’s just you, the wall, and your mind.”

For the past few days we’d been sweating bullets through our Rinzai-style koan sesshin. Chanting till hoarse, stomping through halls like characters from Where the Wild Things Are. We tightened up the drums and bells, wooden clackers ripping through the cacophony of voices. “Mu! Mu! Mu! MUUUUUUUUUU! MUUUUUUUUU! MU! MU! Mu mu mu mu mu…” Chozen bellowed, “You’ve spent your whole lives holding back!” A day in, Soten instructed us to keep the doors closed “lest the neighbors find our behavior a bit…odd.” I couldn’t help grinning.

Sometimes we practice gentleness and sometimes “you gotta throw yourself in that fire,” as Hoben said. It’s koan time. We steeled ourselves for private sanzen interview with the teachers twice a day every day. No personal stories allowed – don’t even bring one word of it. All our instructions: Hide yourself in a pillar.

I had to bite back a giggle every time Tim kicked out his seiza bench as he pushed off the wall for the sanzen stampede. The mad dash, wild limbs flying, and near collisions as we bolted for the door. Then we stood quaking in the hallway like gladiators waiting for the ring as wails, shouts, and thuds came from inside the sanzen hut.

An ominous haze and smell of smoke from nearby fires settled over the grounds, reminding us of the solemnity of what we’re doing. This is life or death. Like clockwork as the 8 p.m. train howled to life through the valley, the coyotes sprang in answer, paying revered homage to their own great godly Mu roaring from the night. As we settled into Yaza, Kisei sang us a different kind of lullaby. With a deep, powerful voice she pleaded for us to take heed, this is no small matter, her voice sliding up in pitch as she belted the final line, “AWAKEN! AWAKEN! DO NOT SQUANDER YOUR LIIIIIIIIIIIIFE!”

On the last night of sesshin, we trickled out the zendo to meet face-to-face a full moon so blinding it hurt to look at, flooding the whole ghostly landscape with glow. I followed a number of wanderers to the forest and stepped into an alien world, cool watery light beaming through monstrous dark skeletons, each step alternating breathless night and white glitter raining down from the stars. A dog howled and cows mooed in the distance, birds stirring with a few caws, as if all creatures implored, “How could I possibly be sleeping right now?!” I floated back out to the meadow, weaving through people standing still as statues dumbfounded in awe with faces upturned, round and shining, reflecting the clear light of the moon. Purely radiant. And wide awake.

Photos by Sophia Wolfe.
Contact Janet: stories@zendust.org